Thursday, 14 September 2017

Is that wine on your t-shirt?

What madness is this? I wander into a good wine merchant in a provincial city, just looking around. (“Can I help you sir?” “No, I’m just looking around…”) And suddenly, I spy a stack of t-shirts. They are branded with the wine merchant’s name. And they are for sale, like some kind of souvenir.

Now, there are a few one-off, internationally celebrated shops to which tourists make a special visit. If you go to Shakespeare & Company in Paris, or C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries in New York, you might possibly want to display their names on a t-shirt back home, to show that you’d been there. For visitors to our capital, that status might just apply to Fortnum & Mason, or to the once-iconic Knightsbridge store we now think of as Horrid. But seriously, would it apply to any of our wine merchants?

It’s one thing producing attractive, reusable bags bearing a wine merchant’s name. These are functional items, not only for carrying home your purchased wine, but for disguising later purchases from embarrassing retailers. Walk up the road with what is clearly six bottles in Asda bags? No thanks; I’ll pop them into my Lea & Sandeman bag-for-life and, for as long as no-one looks inside, try to look like a man of wealth and taste. For half the price of a bottle of their actual wine. 


But are there any wine merchants so aspirational that their names could be displayed on t-shirts like designer brands? Had he actually done so, might CJ have bought a Berry Bros & Rudd t-shirt, to commemorate summoning up the nerve to cross their threshold?  We shall, of course, never know. I suspect, however,that any business flaunting an ampersand would feel it somewhat vulgar to emblazon their name across a t-shirt – as indeed would their customers. We’re unlikely to see t-shirts bearing the names of Corney & Barrow, or Justerini & Brooks; we’ll have to settle for Cuthbert, Dibble & Grub. 


Few of us, surely, would wear a t-shirt emblazoned with the names of, say, Oddbins or Majestic. Unless, of course, we worked there. In which case, it would be less a fashion statement, more a contractual obligation. 

Perhaps other merchants might leap in, creating “witty” slogans for t-shirts? “I’m a Sampler”. “I waited in for Laithwaites”. “How Avery dare you!”. No, let’s stop there, and not even consider what slogans might be created for Virgin, Naked and Rude.
 

Because this could mark the emergence in wine of what I believe in the music industry is known as merch. I was there!, declares your tour merchandise. I saw Adele! I was in the same (very large) space as the Rolling Stones! I survived a Liam Gallagher gig!

So why not tell the world that you’ve experienced a bottle of Lafite? If you did actually get to drink something like a bottle of DRC, you might well like a t-shirt to commemorate it. Fellow enthusiasts might sidle up to you to discuss it. “Oh, cool man, 2008, remember those top notes?” (Sorry, was that DRC, or Adele?) 

Imagine on a t-shirt the iconic Latour tower, or the year’s Mouton artwork, reflecting your connoisseurship. Or an image of any tasteful label, complete with year, to announce your wine experience. Wearing a wine label on your chest could be like wearing your heart on your sleeve.

Or in CJ’s case, something like a Tough Mudder t-shirt for completing an assault course. “I finished this bottle of bottom-shelf Shiraz and lived to tell the tale”

But the wine is not the same as the merchant, is it? Been there, done that, got the t-shirt should not apply to visiting a wine merchant, however gruelling the experience might be. I hope these wine merchants are not suggesting that a visit to their store is so arduous that you deserve a t-shirt to show that you survived it.

Unless perhaps it’s to identify repeat customers, so that by wearing a t-shirt they stop asking, as soon as you cross the threshold, if they can help you. Now, that’s something for which I would be happy to pay £8.99.

PK



Thursday, 7 September 2017

Naming Wines: Let's Use Science!

So the dream of letting Artificial Intelligence design wine names has come a fraction closer: I have been in correspondence with the excellent Janelle Shane, wondering if her neural networks (which have had such success generating paint charts and craft beers) might work with wines. Her take on it? At this early stage, yes, all things are possible. There is some nervousness about stepping outside the world of, basically, Anglo-Saxon nomenclature; so Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and America are going to provide the basic structures - although some snippets of French may eventually creep in. Also, to work at all properly the neural networks need lots and lots of existing names to learn from, hundreds of the things. Back to me, and the next question: How to create such a list?

After an hour of persistent thought, I only have one idea, which is to physically comb through the lists of the big suppliers and supermarkets, churning through their Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and North America entries by hand, copying and pasting until my head swims. Oh, and some English wines, why on earth not? Well, I can already see why not, given that it seems utterly counter-intuitive to cobble together a list of brand names painstakingly by hand, like some piece worker from the nineteenth century, only to deliver the fruits of this drudging manual harvest to a cutting-edge twenty-first century machine and have it instantaneously translated into The Future. I might as well go out and pick the sloes from the hedges, it'd be just as time-consuming and tedious, but at least I'd have some sloes at the end, which I could then turn into a drink. Although on the debit side of that idea, most of the sloe gin I've ever made has tasted terrible, so perhaps the comparison is less watertight than I think. And, on the other hand, if I do go through the list, name-picking by hand, then maybe, just maybe, Ms. Shane's miracle program will create something so new and vibrant that the whole world will be enriched, just a tiny bit, and God knows we need something to brighten our days. My sacrifice, I start to tell myself, will be for the good of mankind.

After that, of course, I experience another small crisis when it occurs to me that I will have to taxonomise the wines as I go, but what taxonomy to use? I mean, I could just do all reds and all whites and leave it at that, a more or less random selection. But in her terrific craft beer re-stylings, Ms. Shane has already pinned the beers down to categories such as IPA, Stout and so on. A mere shopping-list of wines names isn't going to be enough to keep her happy, I can feel it. So how to divvy them up in anticipation? By principal grape? By price? By sub-region (although that sounds unnecessarily granular to me, all that Barossa Valley stuff)? By style - robust, medium-bodied, lightweight? By reference to topographical feature as mentioned on the label (valley, creek, ridge, hill, river) or colour (yellow, silver, ink, limestone, unless that's topography) or animal (dog, eagle, kangaroo, bird, whale, horse, I could go on) or even simply alcoholic strength? And what about all those characterful place names which to some extent already sound like fabrications - Kangarilla, Waimea, Oxney, Boschendal - how do I insinuate them into the Big List? Would the craft beer experiment have got off the ground if the neural networks had been given Bofferding as a building-block? How, come to think of it, could anything sound less plausible than Wirra Wirra Church Block, currently available at Tesco?

No, hold on, the thing is, given the amount of dumb toil ahead of me, I want as little mental involvement as possible. I don't want to have to check the alcohol count or find out if it's an easy-drinking medium white or even make great inroads into the grape variety. So it's going to be country and that's that. All right, country and colour.

I make a start. After about fifteen minutes with an on-line supermarket wine list, I have twenty-seven reds. I would have done it in ten minutes, but for the fact that the formatting on the web page kept invading my basic document and I had to scrub out images of bottles and presumptuous text alignments. Assuming I get better at it: twelve minutes for every twenty-five names; that's a hundred and twenty-five names in an hour, not too bad. Two, two and a half hours should give me most of what I need, assuming that there are two hundred and fifty-odd different Anglophone wines out there. Oh, and then I'll have to check for duplications. Still. Two and a half hours. That's less than it takes to watch Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris from beginning to end, so really, how hard can it be?

CJ


Thursday, 31 August 2017

Spot the difference?

A fish supper in the offing, and 25% off six bottles at Sainsbury’s – game on! So I check the Guardian’s incomparable Fiona Beckett, who recommends the “lusciously creamy” McGuigan Founder’s Series Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2015. “Snap it up if you ever see it on promotion,” she says.   So I make it snappy.

McGuigan, eh? CJ territory. He once inflicted upon me some eye-watering McGuigan Shiraz, for which they must have interpreted from their namesake boxer the term 'pugilistic'. So I am perhaps understandably cautious. 


But I trust the magnificent Ms Beckett completely, and approach the hitherto neglected display of their wines. And I experience the wariness of a traveller presented with a foreign currency, whose banknotes all seem to look the same.

Her recommendation sits proudly on the top shelf. With a unique bottle and distinctive label, it stands out. And of course, she is spot on; it turns out to be a rich, creamy Chardonnay, a smooth and tasty Bridget Jones comfort blanket.

But what astonishes me is the array of barely distinguishable McGuigan Chardonnays on the shelves below.

There was their Estate at £4.95; their Classic at £5.50; and their Reserve at £6. Their Founder’s was on promotion indeed at £9 (reduced from £11); and then there was their Shortlist at £14. That’s five Chardonnays, with a £9 difference in price per bottle, or 260%, between bottom and top.

Now, I’m old enough to remember when European wines were considered “difficult”, when people thought it was hard to grasp the difference between Burgundy and Bordeaux, let alone their various classifications. So forgive me if I’m somewhat baffled by things at this lower, New World end of the market; but there, I thought, matters were supposed to be more straightforward.

These McGuigan brands, to me, are meaningless. Bin, Classic, Reserve, Estate, Release, Private; they are all just interchangeable terms used to suggest quality in wine. None sounds inherently superior to another. You could equally well combine them; Classic Release; Reserve Bin; Classic Reserve; Private Bin. Oh, they’ve actually used that one.

And the labels are as neutral as their names, just a kaleidoscope of parts. If there’s some hierarchy of white over silver or vice versa, it’s lost on me. Does a lion suggest better quality than a signature? What about half a lion, like a misplaced wax seal? Or a silver lion? Or a lion’s signature?

No, the only guidance discernible to me is one of price. This one must be “better” (whatever that means) because it costs 50p more. Like the famous Class sketch,  it looks down on one, but up to another. It sits on a higher shelf.

Now, if you go to Volkswagen, it’s pretty clear why a Golf is more expensive than a Polo. And in case you can’t see the difference, there are specifications to explain why one costs more than the other. So I turn for similar guidance to the UK website  where McGuigan list details of 66 – count ‘em, 66! – wines, including 10 pure Chardonnays alone.

The Founder’s Series, I discover, is “a celebration of the four generations of the McGuigan family, who have made wine their life… the pursuit of producing quality wine… this spirit and commitment to sourcing quality fruit”.

Similar, then, to the Signature brand, of which it says: “The McGuigan family has been making great quality Australian wine for generations, sourcing premium fruit from Australia’s best wine regions. The Signature range is a reflection of this history and commitment to creating wines of great quality and style”

While the Family Release, the clue perhaps being in the name, identifies itself with “The McGuigan Family love affair with wine [which] has passed through the generations and continues today with chief winemaker, Neil McGuigan. Family Release stands as Neil’s recognition of the McGuigans that came before him.”

Credit to one’s forefathers and all that, but that’s quite a lot of indistinguishable celebration, recognition and reflection of effectively the same thing.

And what about taste?

You might, for example, want to choose between the Bin Chardonnay, and the Signature Chardonnay. Best of luck with that. The Bin “is a fresh and crisp Chardonnay with flavours of white peach and ripe nectarine. It has a nice fresh finish and lingers on the palate.” Whereas the Signature “is a fresh and vibrant Chardonnay with flavours of white peach and ripe nectarine. It has a nice crisp finish and lingers on the palate.“

Or you might be weighing up the Classic against the Family Release.  The Classic: “This fresh and fruity Chardonnay has intense stone fruit and citrus character, complimented by subtle oak and a crisp finish.”. Against the Family Release: “This fresh and fruity Chardonnay has intense stone fruit and citrus character, complimented by a subtle oak and a crisp finish.” Don’t even try – the descriptions are, in fact, identical.

So how do you choose which one you want? Not by interchangeable name or undifferentiated label, by indistinguishable heritage, by similar or indeed identical tasting notes.

Presumably, you decide by price, the one clearly differentiating factor. And trust that the wine improves in corresponding increments of 50p a bottle.

Never was that old saying more appropriate – you pays your money, and you takes your choice. Of shelves.

PK